Lessons from the Elites at the 2015 LA Marathon

One of my favorite things about running as a sport is following elite runners! They are so inspiring yet so relatable—I think part of it is that elite marathoners, for the most part, participate in the same events as we do. There are 2-hour-marathoners and 6-hour-marathoners running the exact same race. 

Ryan and I love to watch the major marathons online, so we watched the whole elite portion plus some of the 30th LA Marathon this Sunday. The race also doubled as the USA Marathon Championships. The heat and hilling course added to the challenge of racing 26.2 miles, and seeing how the different elites reacted to these obstacles made me think about what we can learn from them about running a marathon.

Here are some lessons from the elites at the 2015 LA Marathon: 

Image Courtesy of Competitor.com.
Image Courtesy of Competitor.com.

If you’re not getting the desired results, change your training.

The LA Marathon was the first marathon that third female overall and winner of the women’s USA Marathon Championship, Blake Russell, had completed in 7 years. Since the 2008 Olympic Marathon in Beijing, motherhood kept Russell away from the marathon. When she began to train again and tried to compete, things did not go as planned: she DNF’d at the 2011 Boston, 2012 Olympic Marathon  Trials, and recently at 2015 New York City Marathon. So Russell and her coach completely changed her training plan. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; but it’s insanity, as the saying goes, to do the same thing over and over again but expect different results.

Russell told Runner’s World that she increased her weekly mileage from 100 to 120, add more and longer marathon-paced workouts, and took her speedwork off the tracks and onto the roads. These changes helped Russell get used to running at race pace, prepare for the specificities of road racing, and prevent injuries. Most of all, changing her training provided Russell with the stimulus she needed to run a 2:34 marathon and earn a spot on the podium.

 So if you’ve had a series of bad races or have stopped seeing improvements in your times, look at your training. Does speedwork on the track lead to injury for you? Are you skimping out on tempo runs? Should you add hill training? Is neglecting strength training harming you in the later miles of the race? Change up your training in some way, whether it’s running more mileage or adding in race-specific workouts. Consider hiring a coach to help you work on your weaknesses and prepare for the specific demands of the race course. Use tune-up races before your goal race to see if your training changes are working; if so, keep them, if not, change them and keep trying. 

Adjust your race plan when challenges arise. 

Sara Hall is arguably one of the most impressive elite runners. She is a US National XC Champion who then maintained equally impressive times when she took to road racing, including a 1:10:50 half marathon PR at the Half Marathon Championships. The LA Marathon was her first marathon, and everyone was anticipating a strong debut In the 2015 LA Marathon, she was running strong with the pack for the first half of the race until she slowly began to fade. She battled the heat, dehydration, and cramps, but instead of quitting, she kept pushing forward. She finished in a 2:48, a time which many of us average runners can only dream about but is a disappointing finish to an elite. She said on her Facebook page that she drew on the “incredible crowd support” to keep going. 

Races do not occur in a vacuum. Weather, off-days, stomach issues, cramps, periods, and all sorts of factors outside of our training can pop up on race day. What we can learn from Hall is that no one is safe from a race gone wrong; bad races happen to elite and regular runners alike. What matters, though, is how you handle it. It can be hard, but when you keep pushing forward, you can at least give it your best for that day. Your best for that day is not your overall, stars-ailgned best, but it’s better than hanging up the towel or letting the obstacles get into your head and bring you down. 

Sometimes you have to quit now to do better in the future. 

Ryan Hall, who holds the US record for the half marathon, has not had a good marathon since his 2:04 finish at the 2011 Boston Marathon. He was running a strong race for the first few miles of the LA Marathon, keeping pace with a pack of Kenyans. However, Hall began to slow down, and fell further and further back in the men’s pack. At mile 13, Hall ran off the course, pulled off his bib, and dropped out of the race. He has not disclosed why he chose not to finish the race, but I would assume it was because something was wrong and he did not want to risk injury or illness. 

Dropping out of a race is far from ideal, and most times, you can dig deep and just keep pushing. However, there are times when dropping out of a race, especially one as long as a marathon, is best for your body. It’s an extremely personal decision, and some runners are okay to keep running under the same conditions when it is best for others to quit. Dehydration in an extremely hot and humid race can lead to serious illness, so if you’re showing the symptoms of dehydration, it may be wise for you to quit and not finish the race. If you pull a muscle during a race, you may choose to drop out so that you do not keep running on the injury and put yourself out of running for several months. The race is only one race, as the consequences of running when you should stop can last for a very long time. 

Save your best for the last few miles.

Until mile 21 of the LA Marathon, it looked like Kenyan Edwin Koech was going to win the race. He then began to slow slightly, and fellow Kenyan Daniel Limo took the lead and held on to it for the rest of the race. Third place finisher and male winner of the US National Championship, Jared Ward, was not in the lead pack for a majority of the race; when watching it, it seemed as if he came out of nowhere when he crossed the finish line! Both of these men held back during the early miles of the race, when it’s tempting to crank out some fast miles and bank time for later. However, more often that not, that strategy leads to falling apart in the later miles of the race. Limo and Ward ran negative splits, which allowed them to save energy to the end and claim the leads when it really mattered.

Even if you’re not racing for a spot on the podium or prize money, running a negative split is one of the best ways to have a great race and earn a PR. By pacing your first half of the race slower than your second half, you reserve precious energy for when you’ll need it the most. It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of the race and run faster than you planned, but if you keep a conservative pace, you’ll be able to get faster as you go and pass many of the people who went out super-fast at the start. Aim to run the first third of your race slightly slower than goal pace (about 5-10 seconds), the second third at goal pace, and the final third 5-10 seconds faster than goal pace. 

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8 Responses

  1. All great reminders for us! I have changed my training approaches many times in hopes of getting it right. If it’s not working, there’s no point in trying to fit square pegs into round holes. There’s lots to learn from observation!

    1. Thank you! I read in Noakes’ Lore of Running to treat training like an experiment and change it as you finds works for you. Sounds exactly what you’ve done! 🙂

  2. These are all guidelines that I use in my own running (after learning the hard way, often), and they are invaluable. I think that it all comes back to being flexible and willing to adjust. Training plans are great, but they were made for the average, which consequently applies to none of us!

    1. You are SO right! It is hard to shake out of the mentality that training plans should be followed to the letter (at least for me it was!), but they’re not a one-size-fits-all.

  3. It’s SO important to be able to learn from past experiences and change things up as you go! And I think that training and racing is more personal than it seems…we all have ways that we will train our best and race our best.

    1. I definitely agree with you – racing is so personal and we need to keep that in mind when we compare ourselves to others or try to talk about people like Hall. Racing should be about what’s best for us and our goals!

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